Je suis Charlie.
I’ve seen that over and over these last days, that rallying cry in response to the dozen people killed at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris.
This one feels different somehow, doesn’t it? No shopping mall or landmark or school, but a place even more sinister. This feels like a declaration of war not upon a government or a people, but upon the very foundation of Western civilization. The right to freely express one’s views in whatever manner one wishes is a pillar upon which all freedom is based, a right that transcends the rule of man and approaches the realm of the holy. And so I mourned those deaths even as I cheered the protests that followed, those untold thousands who raised not candles in remembrance of the lost, but pens. Chanting, nearly singing as the call filled the air:
Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.
I’ve spent a lot of time doing something else these past days. I’ve been pondering what it is I do as well. It seems a silly thing on the face of it, scribbling words onto a page. But if the news has shown us anything of late, it is that art wields a power unequaled by politics and guns. Unequaled, even, by terror.
And that’s exactly what writers are. And cartoonists and actors and poets. Painters and composers and musicians. We are artists. Even me. You’ll likely never catch me saying that again. “I’m an artist” sounds a little too fancy for my tastes, a little too conceited. But it’s true. We create. We explore. We tell the world’s stories.
That is why those dozen people were killed.
I hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo until this all happened. In the wake of the violence and death, I wanted to see what sort of art could drive people to murder in the name of their God. I went online and looked at a few of their past covers, knowing all the while that the newspaper was an equal opportunity offender — not just Muslims, but Jews and Christians and politicians as well. I stopped when I found a cover cartoon depicting God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit engaging in anal sex.
I suppose a publication devoted to such things becoming the banner for freedom would touch a wrong chord in some. Soon after Je suis Charlie became popular, another name began being chanted — Je suis Ahmed. As in Ahmed Merabet, the Paris policeman shot in front of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters as the attack began. Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who sacrificed his life for the right of others to mock what he held most dear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ahmed, too. About how noble his death was, and how terrible. “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” said a cartoonist for the paper. I wonder if they would vomit on Ahmed, too.
I don’t know how I feel about any of this. There are times when I sit with pen in hand and shut myself off as the words flow. Not so this time. This time, every stroke and thought has been an agony. Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As a writer — as a human being — I have always adopted that philosophy and always will, just as I find inspiration in the words of Charlie Hebdo’s publisher, Stephane Charbonnier, who said before his death, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
But I am not Charlie Hebdo.
If I am indeed an artist, then I am the sort who believes art should not shock, but inspire. It should not tear apart, but bring together. I am the sort who revels in the liberty to speak and write and will fight for that liberty until my dying breath, but I am also the sort who believes with that liberty comes a responsibility to use it wisely and with great love. Yes, I am free. But there lays within that freedom limits that should be imposed not by the rule of man, but the rule of decency. Having the right to do a thing is not the same as being right in doing it.
We live too much by impulse and the desires to entice and confound. We would do better to live more by the heart.
I figure I’m much tool old to bother with New Year’s resolutions. I’ve learned my lesson. So many of their broken bits trail along behind me now, all well-intentioned but doomed to failure. We all strive and wish and work for our own vision of wholeness, however right or wrong that vision may be, and yet we will always be broken. That brokenness, I think, is half of what it means to be human. To try and mend that brokenness nonetheless—to stare ahead into some yet unformed tomorrow and see ourselves becoming the people we are meant to be—that is the other half.
At twelve and on the cusp of thirteen, my daughter suffers no such constraints of worldly wisdom. She not only embraces the concept of resolutions, she devoted much of her Christmas vacation to them. She filled pages upon pages of the small black notebook she carries with wondrous ideas of self-improvement. I cautioned her to narrow things down a bit, cut five pages down to one and then whittle things even further, to a single focus. After much deliberation and crossing out, she announced to me on New Year’s Day her goal for the coming year:
To have a middle finger like mine.
My first thought—God forgive me—was that she meant something along the lines of the lewd gesture to which we are all familiar. Not so. She took my hand and stretched it out, showing me the hump of hard skin just inside the first knuckle of the middle finger on my right hand. She pressed it, then smiled and said, “Feels like a marble. I want one.”
“Doesn’t look too good,” I told her. “Which doesn’t really matter with me, since I’m a guy. Guys tend to think the rougher their hands are, the better. Means they’re doing stuff.”
“I want one,” she said again. “I want to do stuff. Think that’s fine?”
“I think that’s very fine.”
She sat down beside me. A worn nub of a pencil appeared from one of her pockets. That black notebook of hers came out of the other. She opened to a page near the middle and took the pencil in her hand, placing her forefinger along the barrel and wrapping her middle finger around it just so.
I asked, “What are you scribbling?”
“I don’t know. Just words. Sometimes I don’t know what’s gonna come out until it does. Is that bad?”
“Nope,” I said. “I think that’s the best.”
She wrote for twenty minutes maybe, working on those words she didn’t know, working on that writer’s bump she wants on her middle finger. I told her it would take time. Lots of time and lots of scribbling. My daughter doesn’t care.
She says she has stories to tell and everyone does, and if we keep those stories locked up inside us they’ll die and maybe an important part of our hearts will die right along with them. She’s a smart one, my daughter, and wise.
I only told her some of what that hard hump of skin on my finger means. Time and practice, yes, but there is also more and harder. Because if she really wants to tell her stories, my daughter will find the going rough. There is no journey in this life fraught with more peril than the journey inside ourselves, no land more arduous and unexplored, and we cannot ever hope to venture there and return unscathed. Every writer bears ugly scars, just as every person does. The hump on my finger is merely the one most visible.
The note above was penned by an eighty-five-year-old man named Robert. One day last month, he drove his car down a steep rural road to look at a pond. When he tried to drive back the way he came, the car rolled off the path and became mired in a ravine.
Robert was unable to walk out of his situation due to back problems that left him only able to get around with the help of a walker. He had no food. The only water he had barely filled an 8 ounce bottle. He honked his horn until the car battery was depleted.
Robert sat there, alone in his car, for two days.
With no food, little water, and temperatures in the upper 90s, he realized things didn’t look good. So he grabbed a pen and began writing on the car’s armrest.
Look closely and you can make a bit of it out. The first—and Robert said the most important—was that he make sure everyone knew it was an accident. Robert didn’t want anyone thinking he committed suicide. He wrote that the car’s wheels spun out. He asked that his family give him a closed casket.
About forty hours later, Robert was found. Turns out that final note wasn’t needed after all. As you can imagine, the whole ordeal changed him. Robert has a new outlook on life. He understands its delicateness. He knows every moment is precious.
It’s a good story with a happy ending. But me, I can’t stop thinking about that note.
What would I tell my family? What would I tell you? What would I say if I could never say anything more? Those questions have preyed on my mind since reading Robert’s story. I figured the only way I could start thinking about something else is to go ahead and write my letter.
So here it is, the last thing I’d ever write:
I don’t know how I managed to get myself in this mess. I think a lot of times you can’t see the trouble that’s coming until it’s on you. This is probably one of those times. I guess I should hurry. I never used to think much about time. Suddenly, time seems pretty important.
To my family, I want to say that the very last thing I want to do is leave you behind. You need to know that as much as I’m ready for heaven, I’m thinking the angels will have to drag me there. But don’t worry, I’ll find me a bench somewhere near the gate and wait for each of you.
To my wife, I’m sorry I was never the man I wanted to be. I’m thankful you overlooked that. Take care of the kids. Raise them to believe like you and fight like me.
To my son, there are few things more difficult in life than knowing how to be a man. I’ll give you a quick summary—work hard, laugh much, pray often. Love dignity rather than money. Face your darkness. Let your word be your bond. You’ll do well in life if you cling to those things. Know that I will always be proud of you.
To my daughter, you’ve taught me more about faith than anyone I’ve ever known. Remember this: we seldom have any choice as to the wars we must fight, we can only elect to face them with honor or cowardice.
To my friends, I know it may appear at times that I prefer silence to speech and solitude to company, but you mended the gashes I had rent into my own heart. Whatever goodness is in me was fostered by you.
I ask that you dispose of my remains as you see fit. I have no preference. Whatever flesh and bone is left behind is not me, it is merely an empty house that God has deemed I’ve outgrown.
Do not mourn, laugh.
Do not look back, look forward.
And last, know that all that separates the two of us is but one stroke of heaven’s eternal clock. Life is but a dream. Death is simply when we wake.
Back when I decided I wanted to become a writer, I added a “someday” to the end. As in, “I’m going to be a writer someday.” That was what I believed I was supposed to do, what was expected of me. Because no one first starting out writing was a writer. You had to do things first.
You had to have a manuscript, for instance. Or at least be working on one. And you had to have a blog and a “social networking presence”. You had to have followers and friends and readers. An agent. And, of course, a publishing contract.
To me, procuring that last one would be my golden ticket into the chocolate factory. To have a book out, to be published, would eliminate the need for that “someday” I kept adding. I wouldn’t need it anymore. I would be a writer. A real one.
Until that time (and if that time ever came, because I understood the odds), I considered myself merely a wannabe. And those thoughts didn’t change after I had a manuscript and a blog and a “social networking presence” because I saw the writing world as a segregated one. The ones who had books on Amazon and did interviews occupied the castles, and the rest of us were left to beg at the gate for any morsel of acceptance tossed our way. I would pass notes through that gate in the form of queries and proposals to any who ventured close enough, hoping against hope that one of them would pity me and bid me to pass. Theirs was the life I wanted, not my own.
It was tough looking through that gate and watching those published writers gorge on their dreams while I starved on my own.
Every so often someone on my side would be granted entrance. Those were always good times, hopeful times, because everyone left would believe their turn may be next. I would watch as those people crossed over and imagine they were me. Often they would each come close to the gate and talk to the rest of us on the other side. We’d hear amazing stories that would both fill us and leave us hungrier.
I had hope that if I hung around long enough—if I kept knocking—my turn would come. I was right about that. Talent can only get you so far in the publishing business. You have to persist. You have to always try once more.
For proof of that, the gate did open. I found on the other side my agent and she helped me find my publisher. Amazon and interviews followed. I thought I would be loosed then. Set free. I suppose in my mind I’d always considered being published akin to shedding my mortal coil in favor of a heavenly body.
That wasn’t true.
There are a lot of writers who change when they go from the land of wanting to be published to the land of author. They think they’ve become someone they’re not because they’re in a place few have been blessed to venture.
I’ve always promised myself that if I were fortunate enough to cross over, I’d stay close to the gate just to see you. Just so you would come close and I could talk to you and say this:
Writing is the most democratic form of expression I know. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you stand in this life, you have a story to tell. One that is just as important, just as needed, as anyone else’s. Being a real writer isn’t a matter of being published, it’s a matter of how you see yourself. It’s a matter of study and work and determination, not a contract.
I found that out.
There is no “someday”. You are a real writer the moment you put pen to page and soak it with your tears and sweat and dare to share yourself with the world. It is that supreme act of courage that gives your life meaning, not a piece of paper to sign and initial at the bottom.
That’s what I will tell you.
And I will tell you this as well—the world on this side of the gate isn’t that different from the world on the other. We strive in each to inspire and transport our reader.
That is our hope and our call.
Some friends of ours moved last week. Traded one set of blue mountains for a set of rocky ones. It’s something they’ve wanted to do for a while (he has family in Colorado, not twenty miles from their new home, and she grew up in nearby Boulder). Their move had less to do with the economy than a simple desire for a change of scenery. I nodded when they told me that, but I didn’t really understand. Who would want to leave rural Virginia?
I’ve known them for about fifteen years now. They’ve been to my home, I’ve been to theirs. We’ve shared meals and Christmas presents and birthday parties for our children. It’s a sad thing that in a world defined by hustle and bustle and there’s-always-something-going-on, few people slow down enough to make good friends. That’s what I’d call them—good friends.
But they’re gone now, a thousand miles westward. They will find new lives, and I will keep my old one.
Their leaving was a bit anti-climactic. That surprised me. I suppose deep down I knew what I had yet to consider, which was that they’d still be around. There’s the phone, of course. E-mail. Facebook and Twitter. Skype. No matter that two mountain ranges and a great big river separated us, they’d still be no more than a few button pushes away.
That’s when I realized how much the world has shrunk. Never mind that our technology has made it possible to cure disease and peer into the deepest reaches of the universe and know within moments what has happened in a tiny spot across the world. It has done something more profound than all of those things together.
It has lifted from us the heavy weight of ever having to say goodbye.
I’ve read stories of families separated during the Great Depression, of parents and children cleaved apart as some remained behind and others struck out for new territories and better hope. They had to say their goodbyes. Many were never heard from again. Can you imagine?
I remember looking around at my classmates during high school graduation and thinking that I’d never see or hear from most of them again. These were friends, many of whom I’d known since third grade. They’d shared my life, I’d shared theirs. Yet as I sat there I knew all of that was slipping away. I knew that to live was not about being born and dying later, it was to endure many births and suffer many deaths, and sometimes that birth and death happens in the same moment.
I was right. Twenty years later, I’ve not seen many of them. But more than one have friended me on Facebook, and from all over the world.
This should make me feel good, I guess. Aside from death, there are no farewells now. There is always “Talk to you soon” or “Shoot me an email” or “DM me.”
But I don’t feel particularly good. I think we’re missing out on something if we never have to say goodbye anymore. I think it robs us of the necessity of truly understanding the impact some people have on our lives, and the impact we have on the lives of others. To have to say goodbye is to know a part of you is leaving or staying, either scattered through the world or planted where you are.
I say this because just a bit ago, I received an email (plus pictures) from my friends. Things are well with them. They’re settling in and getting used to things. They’re happy. And that’s good.
But rather than casually shooting an email back, I think I’ll sit down and take my time. I think I’ll treat it as a farewell, even though it isn’t. I think I’ll tell them just how much I’ll miss them even though it’ll be as if we’re still just down the road from each other.
I figure somewhere deep down, they’ll need that goodbye. I know I do.
I stopped by the local bookstore over the weekend to speak with a friend and ask a favor—Would it be possible to schedule a book signing sometime in the next few months? We chatted a bit about the particulars and then he excused himself to fetch the store manager, leaving me alone at the front with a young lady working one of the cash registers.
“So you wrote a book?” she asked me.
“I did. Written four, actually.” I said.
“What’s your last one about?”
“It’s about four people and how three of them cope with the untimely death of the other one.”
She turned up her nose. “That doesn’t sound very uplifting.”
“Oh, it is,” I told her. “In the end, they all receive what they had hoped to find but never expected–Redemption.”
“So, it’s like a real book.”
“Sure is, pages and everything.”
The cashier muttered a “Huh” and left our conversation at that, turning to adjust her bookstore smock and straighten the stickpin near her collar. Life Is Short, Read Much! it said. My friend still wasn’t back with the manager, so I passed the next few minutes perusing the new releases on the table beside me.
“You just don’t look like a writer,” girl offered, eyeing me from my boots to my hat.
“I don’t?” I asked her.
“No, not really.”
“What’s a writer look like?”
“Well,” she said, “like…not you.”
“Ah,” I answered, nodding as if her definition had cleared that up just fine.
“We had a writer in here last month,” she said. “You could tell. She has glasses and short hair and was dressed all in black. And she used big words. Really big words. I couldn’t understand much of what she said.”
“My hair’s short and I my hat’s black,” I tried. But that wasn’t enough.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “You look just fine. For a regular guy, anyway. But even if you dressed like a writer, you wouldn’t act like one.”
“How’s a writer supposed to act?”
“I want to be a writer one day,” she said. “But I don’t think I can ever act like one. I’m not that smart.”
I was about to say something, but just then my friend returned with the manager in tow. We worked out a tentative date and time, and he even offered free coffee for the occasion. Who says writing doesn’t have its own perks?
The cashier was gone when we were finished, her shift over for the day. That was a shame. I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes with her, if only to explain why what she said was simply not so.
Because she was wrong, you know. Wrong about most everything she had said. I consider myself a guy who writes rather than a writer who’s a guy, for one. Big difference there. It means that if the bottom ever falls out or the well ever runs dry, I’ll still be me.
But more than that, she was wrong about how a writer is supposed to dress or act or talk. Very wrong.
There’s a grave misperception that writing must incorporate some sort of rules of eligibility.
You must have a college degree, some say. Or you have to be smart. You have to display a melancholic disposition or be a tortured soul. You have to be this old or this young.
Not so, I say.
True: not everyone can be a writer.
Also true: a writer can be anyone.
And that’s something important to keep in mind the next time someone says you can’t.
Though the homes in my neighborhood are equipped with modern necessities such as central air and electricity, it’s easy at times to think we sit on the border of unspoiled territory. Because for the most part, we do.
Across the road from my house sits about 30,000 acres of national forest, which is home to all manner of creepy crawlies. The boundary between civilized and not is clearly marked by a nearly straight line of neatly-kept backyards and a foreboding tree line of towering oaks.
Of course, neither man nor beast keeps to his own side. We all mingle with each other from time to time. Miles of trails leading into the mountains provide all a guy like me needs for feed his inner redneck. And as if to even things out a bit, everything from bear to deer to snakes to coyotes have been seen wandering our streets.
Most of us pay little mind to such intrusions, believing that the animals have just as much right to snoop around our homes as we have theirs. But there is one person in particular who is uneasy about the whole thing.
I speak of the kid down the road. Sixteenish and free for the summer. I remember the summer I turned sixteen, three glorious months of getting into more trouble than I’d ever gotten into in my life. Ask his father, and he’ll say he almost wishes his son would get into that same sort of trouble. Not a lot, mind you. But at least a little. After all, he’s sixteen. Trouble’s supposed to find you at that age.
But it hasn’t found him, mostly because he refuses to go outside. His days are spent staring out his bedroom window and writing about what he sees. He wants to write a book, he told his father. He’s serious about it. And while his father is supportive, he also knows it’s an excuse. His son doesn’t like his new home. Doesn’t like the small town or the big woods. He wants to go home to the city.
The family moved here from the city last year as the result of a job transfer. All this wildness suits mom and dad just fine, but not the boy. He woke up one morning in April to find a bear in the backyard. Found a snake on the deck a few weeks later. Though he refuses to admit it, they think it was all just a little too Wild Kingdom for him. So when school let out and he was free to do what he wanted, he retreated to the safety of the indoors.
He says he’s spending his time wisely. He’s writing. Working. There isn’t any time for much of anything else.
I heard about all of this the other night while out for an evening walk. His father was putting up a new mailbox, I stopped to say hello, and things just sort of went from there.
“He really is a good storyteller,” he told me. “Just wish he wouldn’t stay inside all the time. That can’t be healthy, can it?”
Not for a kid. And especially not for a writer.
There are a lot of would-be authors out there who think it’s fine to stare out of their window and write about the world. They take their journey within themselves because they’re unwilling or afraid to go out.
I can’t blame them for that. I was once the kid down the road, too.
Not afraid of bears and snakes, but afraid to go out the door. To face life in all its glory and pain. Give me a nice desk and some paper instead. Let life leave me alone so I could write about it.
Sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? But that’s what I thought. And that’s what a lot of authors think.
There is a learning curve to writing, of course. First come the simple words and simpler thoughts, which through countless hours of practice becomes better words and greater thoughts. No one denies this.
But there is another learning curve to writing that often goes overlooked, and that is the experience of living. Of plunging headlong into life and daring to swim in both the clear and the murky waters, and then using pen and paper as a towel to dry yourself off.
You have to hurt. And suffer. You have to love and hate and believe and doubt. You have to fail and succeed.
And the only way to do that is to go out and live before you come in to write.
I’m still hoping that one of these days I’ll learn not to turn on the news. There have been times—long periods in my life—when I’ve done without it to amazing results. The world reduces itself to the most basic elements when you are ignorant of what’s going on beyond your front door. Things don’t seem that bad.
But then I always go back eventually, checking the internet or the cable news once in the morning and then again in the evening. I tell myself there are too many ignorant people in the world to count myself among them, even if that ignorance really does contain a large portion of bliss. As an adult, I have a responsibility to know what’s going on. It’s a duty.
I’m sort of between the two right now. I know some of what’s going on out there, but not a lot. That’s how it is in the middle of writing a book. Getting those pages in every day takes precedent over much of anything else. I don’t have time to tune in, and so I tune out. I figure the world can carry on without me for this little while.
I finished up a little early the other day, though, and decided maybe I’d just take a few minutes to hope on a few websites. Not long, just a few minutes. Sort of like stepping outside to lick your finger and stick it in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. In the span of those few minutes, I learned that 200 girls had been kidnapped in Africa and threatened with being sold into sexual slavery. I learned that a young woman had won an award for filming her own abortion. I learned that climate change is now climate disruption and we’re all going to either drown or die of thirst, and if you happen to disagree with that notion you’re a Neanderthal. And then I shut my computer before I could learn anything else.
I sat there for a little bit, looking out the window on our little neighborhood. The window was open, letting in a bright sun and a breeze that smelled of blooming flowers and cut grass. A guy down the street was throwing a ball to his dog. Two kids next door were shooting hoops in the road. The retired couple who just moved in across the way were planting some rose bushes. It was a scene likely played out in thousands of neighborhoods in America right then, maybe yours, too, but its commonness in no way tarnished the beauty of it in my mind. That little scene I looked down upon, that was life. That was people trying to get by, trying to enjoy things despite it all.
The wind kicked up just for a moment, just enough to sneak through the big oak outside the window and ruffle the papers I’d just written on. They curled in on themselves and then went tumbling into a pile on the floor. I gathered them up and sat there on the carpet, trying to order the pages from memory, and a funny question crossed my mind:
Why are you doing this?
It took me a minute to figure out exactly what “this” was. I thought at first I was asking myself why I was sitting down on the floor with a stack of papers in my hand, but that didn’t sound right. Too obvious. And then I thought maybe the question was more about why I was sitting upstairs to begin with, and not outside enjoying the spring day. But that wasn’t it, either. No, it was more fundamental than either of those, something that struck me deep down where I most live.
The question was why I write at all.
The question was why bother.
Why spend so much time and suffer through so much stress to write books in a country where most people would rather turn on a television than read a chapter? Why go through the endless heartbreak of being a single shouting voice among the tens of thousands of other shouting voices? Why believe that in some small but significant way, what I do can pause a fallen world from its steady pace toward the edge of some great abyss?
And you know what? I’ll have to think about that and get back with you. Because right now, this moment, I really don’t know.
Let me tell you about Henry Darger, the man who wrote one of the most detailed and bizarre books in history.
Never heard of him? Me neither. At least, not until I happened to stumble upon his story a few weeks ago. Seems strange that someone who did something so grand could be so unknown, doesn’t it? But it’s true. In fact, you could even say that’s why Henry was so extraordinary.
He was a janitor. Nothing so special about that, but nothing so wrong with it, either. There is no correlation between who a person is and what that person does for a living. Einstein was a patent clerk. Faulkner a mailman. Henry Darger mopped floors.
An unassuming man. A quiet man. He never married, never really had friends. Just a regular guy living a regular life, one of the faceless masses that occupy so much of the world who are here for a short while and then gone forever.
Henry left in 1973.
There are no accounts of his funeral. I don’t know if anyone attended at all, though I like to think they did. I like to think there was a crowd huddled around his casket that day to bid him farewell.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that so many people are discovered to have been truly extraordinary only after their passing. Such was the case with Henry. A few days after his passing, his landlord went through his apartment to ready it for rent. What he found was astonishing.
What he found hidden among Henry’s possessions was a manuscript. Its title may give you a clue as to the story’s scope and magnitude:
THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS, IN WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, OF THE GLANDECO-ANGELINIAN WAR STORM, CAUSED BY THE CHILD SLAVE REBELLION
Did you get that? If not, I can’t blame you. I had to read the title three times to even understand a little of it, and that doesn’t count the time I actually wrote it out.
The breadth and scope of Henry’s book went well beyond epic. The manuscript itself contained 15,000 pages. Over nine million words. Over 300 watercolor pictures coinciding with the story. Some of the illustrations were so large they measured ten feet wide.
A lifetime’s worth of work. Years upon years of solitary effort, hundreds of thousands of hours spent writing and painting, creating an entire saga of another world.
And all for no apparent reason. Not only did Henry Darger never seek any sort of publication for his work, he never told a soul about it. His book was his dream and his secret alone.
I’ve thought about Henry Darger a lot since I first read about him. Which, as change or fate would have it, just to happened to be the very week my newest novel released. A tough thing, that. You’d think it wouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. No matter who an author is or how successful he or she may be or how many books or under his or her belt, the most important thing to us all is that our words matter. Matter to others, matter to the world. We want what we say and think and feel to count for something.
But Henry Darger reminds me that none of those things mean anything. In the end, we cannot account for how the world will judge our work, and so, in the end, the world’s opinion really doesn’t matter. Simple as that.
What matters—what counts—is that our words stir not the world, but ourselves. That they conjure in our own hearts and minds a kind of magic that neither the years nor the work can dull. The kind of magic that sustains us in our lonely times and gives our own private worlds meaning. The kind of magic that tinges even the life of a simple janitor with greatness.
I’ve written (and read) my share of blog posts about the craft of writing, but the following is by far my favorite. I’m reposting it today because I needed a reminder of why I do what I do. Maybe some of you do, too.
“I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”
I took exactly one class in writing. It was about fifteen years ago at the community college and was taught by a real published author whose name I cannot recall. But she was published, and as far as I was concerned that was all the credentials she needed.
The first class turned out to be the most useful. That’s not to say the instruction given in the proceeding eleven weeks of the course wasn’t useful. It was. But that first night alone was worth the money.
The twenty or so people in the class formed a semi-circle around the professor, who stood in behind a wooden podium that was much more intimidating than she. We sat at attention, notebooks ready, eager to have our heads filled with the hidden secrets of literary success.
“Tell me,” she said, “what does one need to write?”
The more outgoing among the class were quick with suggestions:
“Connections.” (That one was met with a nervous chuckle from the rest of the class.)
Each was met with an approving nod and so was written down by everyone, myself included. But that really wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“Those are good suggestions,” she said, “but you’re leaving the most important aspect out. Anyone?”
“Courage,” she said.
I didn’t really understand that and snickered under my breath. Courage? Soldiers needed courage. Cops needed courage. EMTs and stunt men and bullfighters. But writers? Sitting on your butt and typing on a keyboard did not take courage.
“There are some who might disagree with that,” she said—and to this day I swear she looked at me when she said it—“and I understand. You disagree because you’re writing with your clothes on. By the time you leave here, you’ll be writing naked.”
I’ll admit I almost walked out then. I’d heard about kooky writing classes given by kooky professors who did some pretty strange things in the name of “art.” I was afraid if I stuck around I’d end up dressed in a blue tracksuit with a cup of Kool-Aid in my hand because a comet was passing by to take me to heaven.
I stayed in my seat on the whim she was speaking metaphorically.
“There is no greater fear than to face a blank page,” she said. “It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.”
Twelve of the twenty students raised their hands.
“Wait, wait,” she said, moving her hands in a downward motion. “No, I’m not speaking literally. But I’m not joking, either. Let me ask you something else. Why do people write?”
More hands in the air, which she chose to ignore.
“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”
She told us to put our pens down and just listen.
“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.
“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”
I’ll always remember that. In fact, written on an index card taped to my lamp are these two words—Be Naked. Because she was right, that’s what writing is all about. Fiction or non, poetry or devotional, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter. Our calling is still the same:
To bare ourselves so we may be the mirror the world holds to itself.
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And thanks in no small part to my latest attempt at naked writing, Sylvia Shroades has won a brand new kindle fire in the Litfuse giveaway for The Devil Walks in Mattingly. Thanks to everyone for participating. Congratulations, Sylvia. Let that be the first book you download!
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